Dialects & Regional Variations
Chinese translations are in great demand, which is not surprising considering the number of Chinese speakers in the world.
Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. Over a billion native speakers reside in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora extends to many other nations. In Asia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines each have millions of Chinese speakers, as does the United States. In Canada, Chinese has become the most widely-spoken language outside of English and French.
When we speak about the Chinese language, however, we are commonly talking about a group of languages rather than one individual language.
Many people seeking Chinese translations may be unaware of the differences between the many dialects. It is important to note the differences between the major dialects, both written and spoken, as a translation into the wrong dialect of Chinese will cause difficulties for the target audience.
Spoken Dialects of Chinese: Mandarin and Cantonese
Mandarin is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect not only in China, but also around the world in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, among others.
The most recent census in Canada showed that there were over 530,000 people who spoke Mandarin at home, particularly in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto areas. Worldwide, there are 955 million speakers of Mandarin.
In the 1930s, the government of China sought to make Mandarin the “official” spoken language. Today, Mandarin is taught in schools and often used on radio and TV. As a result, Mandarin is often the lingua franca understood by the many speakers of other Chinese dialects.
Cantonese originates in the historic port city of Guangzhou. Today, it is primarily spoken in the southeastern region, including Guangdong province, as well as in the nearby areas of Hong Kong and Macao.
Cantonese has historically been predominant in Chinese-speaking communities in the U.S. and Canada, although the demographics have changed as immigration from mainland China has increased.
Mandarin and Cantonese have significant differences in vocabulary. Some estimates suggest that approximately 50% of the words are the same; others seem to think it is as low as 20%. Additionally, Mandarin uses five tones to convey meaning, while Cantonese has nine.
“Tone [is], in linguistics, a variation in the pitch of the voice while speaking. The word tone is usually applied to those languages (called tone languages) in which pitch serves to help distinguish words and grammatical categories—i.e., in which pitch characteristics are used to differentiate one word from another word that is otherwise identical in its sequence of consonants and vowels.”
The spoken forms of Mandarin and Cantonese are so distinct as to be mutually unintelligible, and your Chinese translations need to take this into account. If you are translating content with an audio component, such as a video that requires dubbing, you will need to choose the correct dialect of Chinese language for your target audience.
Written Dialects of Chinese: Traditional and Simplified Chinese
In addition to the two main spoken dialects of Chinese, there are also two different writing systems that affect Chinese translations.
Traditional Chinese characters are based on a writing system established in the 2nd century AD. These characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, as well as in many communities in the global diaspora.
To improve literacy in the 1950s, the Chinese government created a streamlined set of commonly used characters. Today, these are referred to as Simplified Chinese. They are the characters taught in mainland Chinese schools and used in modern government documents. Additionally, Chinese-speaking communities in Malaysia and Singapore adapted the same set of characters.
Both styles of characters are written left-to-right when used in a contemporary context, such as a newspaper or a website. However, in historical documents, they were read from the right to the left of a page in columns that ran from top to bottom.
Because Simplified Chinese was developed by the government of China, Traditional Chinese is viewed by many Taiwanese as a marker of national pride and identity.
Chinese Writing Systems
|English||Simplified Chinese||Traditional Chinese|
In general, Simplified and Traditional Chinese are sufficiently different that a reader may struggle to understand if you use a written form they are unfamiliar with. Below, you will find a chart where we have indicated which system to use for your Chinese translations based on your target market.
Chinese Translations and Cultural Context
Cultural context is critical when translating into Chinese, especially given the complex relationship between Taiwan and China.
For example, the official name of Taiwan is “the Republic of China,” whereas the official name of the country we know as China is “the People’s Republic of China.” Referring to either country by the wrong name can be offensive (although even the White House has made the mistake).
Another example has to do with social media apps and other tools that might be incorporated into a website.
In China, users are restricted from accessing some foreign websites, so they use national variants such as Weibo (similar to Twitter), WeChat (similar to WhatsApp) and Baidu (a search engine).
In Taiwan, no such restrictions exist, and people use the same apps as in Canada or the U.S.
In particular, this means that any Chinese translations on your website need to be optimized for Baidu (not Google) if you want your content to be found by searchers in mainland China.
Choosing the Correct Variant for Your Chinese Translations
The following chart should help you determine which dialect you require based on the geographical location of your target audience when you are requesting Chinese translations:
|Country||Spoken Dialect||Written Dialects|
|Mainland China||Mandarin||Simplified Chinese|
|Hong Kong||Cantonese||Traditional Chinese|
The governments of Mainland China and Singapore use simplified Chinese for official documentation, and those of Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional Chinese. Your Chinese translations should take this into account. Not only does it ensure that a local reader will understand the translated text, it also adheres to local customs and culture.
Given the sizeable differences between the various forms of spoken and written forms of the language, it is important that you tell us in which language you would like your translation to be rendered. When requesting Chinese translations, please follow the following rubric for simplicity’s sake:
If you need voice-over or dubbing, let us know more about your target audience so that we can select a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker from the appropriate region.
Our Chinese Translation Process
When you choose Art One Translations to translate your content into Chinese, we will work closely with you to understand your target audience and their needs. Then we select expert linguists who are familiar with the vocabulary, writing system, and cultural context of your readers.
We have years of experience in technical documentation translation, websites and software localization, as well as a variety of other types of translation. Not only are we linguistic experts, but we also have robust QA and desktop publishing teams. Their job is to make sure your Chinese website or software delivers a top-notch user experience, and that your documents are beautifully formatted for Chinese readers.
We look forward to providing you with top-notch Chinese translations into whichever dialect suits your needs.
Please contact us to learn more about Chinese translations and discuss how we can help you with your project.